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The Faith/History Problem, and Kierkegaard's A Priori ‘Proof’

  • M. J. Ferreira (a1)


What has become known as the ‘faith/history’ problem for historical religions like Christianity centres on the attempt to combine the ontological decisiveness, for faith, of an historical event characterized as an actual Incarnation of God with the epistemological indifference, or irrelevance, of historical information about that event which is decisive for faith. Without the former there is nothing to be related to or personally appropriated; without the latter faith is rendered vulnerable to the vagaries of historical research. Soren Kierkegaard's Climacus writings – the Philosophical Fragments and the Concluding Unscientific Postscript – provide a classic formulation of the inherent tension. Twentieth-century variations on the same theme are found in the writings of Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, among others. In what follows I want to highlight an element in Kierkegaard's Climacus account which crucially distinguishes his attempt to deal with the faith/history relation from other attempts to deal with it, and thus offers what I suggest is a novel approach to overcoming the tension. This element – effectively a kind of a priori or conceptual proof – has been neglected, and whatever one's final judgement on its contribution to the problem as a whole, a consideration of it and its implications is, at the very least, integral to a full understanding of the thought-experiment in the Fragments. Moreover, in the process, useful light can be shed indirectly on twentieth-century attempts to deal with the faith/history problem.



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page 337 note 1 Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper Torchbooks, Harper and Row; 1957), p. 89. Further parenthetical references to Tillich will be to this work.

page 340 note 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), p. 130; further parenthetical references will be to this work unless otherwise specified. Hereafter I use Kierkegaard to stand for Climacus.

page 340 note 2 Levine, Michael P., ‘Why the Incarnation is a Superfluous Detail for Kierkegaard’, Religious Studies XVIII (06 1982), 173–4.

page 340 note 3 Pojman, Louis P., ‘Kierkegaard on Faith and History’, International journal for Philosophy of Religion XIII (1982), 63.

page 340 note 4 Levine raises this criticism when he writes that ‘The ontological detail of an actual historical incarnation does not appear to pull any logical weight. Certainly the appearance of God is not necessary for the appearance of the proposition. It is the proposition itself and not the truth of the proposition that appears to be required.’ (172) He notes that Kierkegaard ‘wants to distinguish a “delusion” of an incarnation from an actual historical incarnation by saying that the very thought of an incarnation is so strange that it would have had to be “entrusted” to man by God if such an idea was to be thought at all’. But even so, he continues, ‘we are talking only of ideas and not actual events – even though the idea is the idea of an actual event.’ This, I suggest, neglects Kierkegaard's attempt to avoid just this problem and to guarantee an actual event by reference to his a priori proof.

page 342 note 1 It is interesting to note that Lewis, C. S. makes a similar kind of point. He writes that with respect to the historical Incarnation, our ‘assurance is strongest of all’ because ‘The story is strangely like many myths which have haunted religion from the first, and yet it is not like them. It is not transparent to the reason; we could not have invented it ourselves’ (The Problem of Pain [New York: Macmillan; 1962], p. 25).

page 343 note 1 Contra Pojman, it is not enough to suggest that human error could account for the thought, for Kierkegaard would still see as needing to be explained how someone could have understood the mistranslation to refer to a God whose incarnation is paradoxical (rather than to a man named ‘God’)

page 343 note 2 (Princeton: Princeton University, 1941), p. 509; parenthetical references in this paragraph refer to this work, hereafter CUP.

page 344 note 1 Admittedly, the characterization which is Kierkegaard's foundation is not particularly ‘Christian’ – it leaves out much that is normally part of that tradition – but it is nevertheless at least an incarnation of a god so understood that an incarnation is paradoxical. As such it is more than Tillich or Bultmann could consistently get.

page 344 note 2 CUP, pp. 182, 183.

page 344 note 3 CUP, pp. 30, 31.

page 344 note 4 CUP, pp. 43, 15.


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